1 Kings xxi. 2, 3. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money. And Naboth said unto Ahab, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.
You heard to-day read for the first lesson, the story of Naboth and King Ahab. Most of you know it well. Naboth's vineyard has passed into a proverb for something which we covet.
It is good that it should be so. We cannot know our Bible too well; we cannot have Bible words and Bible thoughts too much worked into our ways of talking and thinking about everyday matters. As far as I can see, the best days of England, the best days of every Christian country of which I ever read, have been days when men were not ashamed of their Bibles; when they were ready to live by their Bibles; to ask advice of their Bibles about buying and selling, about making war and peace, about all the business of life; and were not ashamed to quote texts of Scripture in the parliament, and in the market, and in the battle-field, as God's law, God's rule, God's word about the matter in hand, which was, therefore, sure to be the right word and the right rule. People are grown ashamed of doing so now-a-days; but that does not alter the matter one jot. We may deny God, but He cannot deny Himself. His laws are everlasting, and He is ruling and judging us by them now, all day long, just as much as He ruled and judged those Jews by them of old. The God of Abraham is our God; the God of Moses is our God; the God of Ahab and Naboth is our God; neither He nor His government are altered in the least since their time, and they never will alter for ever, and ever, and ever; and if we do not choose to believe that now in this life, we shall be made to believe it by some very ugly and painful schooling in the life to come.
What laws of God, now, can we learn from this story?
First, we may learn what a sacred thing property is. That a man's possessions (if they be justly come by) belong to him, in the sight of God as well as in the sight of man, and that God will uphold and avenge the man's right.
Naboth, you see, stands simply on his right to his own property. 'The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.' I do not think that he meant that God had actually forbidden him: it seems to have been only some sort of oath which he used. He may certainly have had reasons for thinking it wrong to part with his lands; hurtful, perhaps, to his family after him. Yet, as Ahab had promised him a better vineyard for it, or its worth in money, I cannot help thinking that Naboth's reason was the one which shows on the face of his words. It was the inheritance of his fathers, this vineyard. They had all worked in it, generation after generation; perhaps, according to the Jewish custom, they were buried somewhere in it; at least, it had been theirs and now was his; he had worked in it, and played in it-- perhaps since he was a child--and he loved it; it was part and parcel of his father's house to him, a sacred spot.
And so it should be. It is a holy feeling which makes a man cling to the bit of land which he has inherited from his parents, even to the cottage, though it be only a hired one, where he has lived for many a year, and where he has planted and tilled, perhaps with some that he loved, who are now dead and gone, or grown up and gone out into the world, till the little old cottage-garden is full of remembrances to him of past joys and past sorrows. The feeling which makes a man cling to his home and to his own land is a good feeling, and breeds good in the man. It makes him respect himself; it keeps him from being reckless and unsettled. It is a feeling which should not be broken through. It is seldom pleasant to see land change hands; it is seldom pleasant to see people turned out of their cottages. It must often be so, but let it be as seldom as possible. One likes to see a family take root in a place, and grow and thrive there, one generation after another; and you will find, my friends, that families do take root and thrive in a place just in proportion as they fear God and do righteousness. The Psalms tell you, again and again, that the way to abide in the land, and prosper in it, is to trust in the Lord and be doing good; and that the wicked are soon rooted out, and their names perish out of the land. One sees that come true daily.
But to return to Naboth. He loved his own land, and therefore he had a right to keep it. We may say it was but a fancy of his, if he could have a better vineyard, or the worth of it in money. Remember, at least, that God respected that fancy of his, and justified it, and avenged it. When (after Naboth's death) Elijah accused Ahab, in God's name, he put two counts into the indictment; for Ahab had committed two sins. 'Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?' Killing was one sin; taking possession was another.
And so Ahab learnt two weighty and bitter lessons. He learnt that God's Law stands for ever, though man's law be broken or be forgotten by disuse. For you must understand, that these Jews were a free people, even as we are. They were not like the nations round about them, or as the Russians are now--slaves to their king, and holding their property only at his will. The law of Moses had made them a free people, who held their property each man from God, by God's Law, which had said, 'Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet. Cursed is he who removes his neighbour's landmark.' And their kings were bound to govern by Moses' law, just as our kings and rulers are bound to govern by the old constitutions of England, and to do equal justice by rich and poor. But the wicked kings of Israel were trying to break through that law, and make themselves tyrants and despots, such as the Czar of Russia is now. First, Jeroboam began by trying to wean his people from Moses' law, by preventing their going up to worship at Jerusalem, and making them worship instead the golden calves at Dan and at Bethel. For he knew that if he could make idolaters of them, he should soon make slaves of them; and he succeeded; and the kingdom of Israel grew more miserable year by year; and now Ahab, his wicked successor, was breaking down the laws of property and wrongfully taking away his subjects' lands. Perhaps he said in his heart, 'I am king; there is no law stronger than I. I have a right to do what I like.' If he did so, he found that he was mistaken. He found that though he forgot Moses' law, God had not; that the law stood there still, because it was founded on eternal justice, which proceeds for ever out of the mouth of God; and by the Law, which he had chosen to forget, he was judged; by the Law of God, which deals equal justice to rich and poor, which is, like God Himself, no acceptor of persons; but says, 'Thou shalt not covet,' to the king upon his throne as sternly as to the beggar on the dunghill.
And that Law stands still, my friends, doubt it not. Thanks to the wisdom and justice of our forefathers who built the laws of England on those old Ten Commandments, which hang for a sign thereof in every church to this day. Thanks to them, I say, and to God, the root of the law of England is, equal justice between man and man, be he high or low; and it is a thing to bless God for every day of our lives, that here the poor man's little is as safe as the rich man's wealth: but there is many a sin of oppression, many a sin of covetousness, my friends, which no law of man can touch. Make laws as artfully as you will, bad men can always slip through them, and escape the spirit of them, while they obey the letter: and I suppose it will be so to the world's end; and that, let the laws be as perfect as they may, if any man wishes to cheat or oppress his neighbour, he will surely be able to work his wicked will in some way or other. Well then, my friends, if man's law is weak, God's is not;--if man's law has flaws and gaps in it, through which covetousness can creep, God's has none;--even if (which God forbid) man's law died out, and sinners were left to sin without fear of punishment, still God's Law stands sure, and the eye of the living God slumbers not, and the hand of the living God never grows weary, and out of the everlasting heaven His voice is saying, day and night, for ever, 'I endure for ever. I sit on the throne judging right; a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of My kingdom. I judge the world in justice, and minister true judgment unto the people. I also will be a refuge for the oppressed, even a refuge in due time of trouble.'
O hear those words, my friends! hear and obey, if you love life, and wish to see good days; and never, never say a thing is right, simply because the law cannot punish you for it. Never say in your hearts when you are tempted to be hard, cruel, covetous, over-reaching, 'What harm? I break no law by it.' There is a law, whether you see it or not; you break a law, whether you confess it or not; a law which is as a wall of iron clothed with thunder, though man's law be but a flimsy net of thread; and that law, and not any Acts of Parliament, shall judge you in the day when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, and every man shall receive the due reward of the deeds done in the body, not according as they were allowed or not by the Statute Book, but according as they were good or evil.
Another lesson we may learn from this story: that if we give way to our passions, we give way to the Devil also. Ahab gave way to his passion; he knew that he was wrong; for when Naboth refused to sell him the vineyard, he did not dare openly to rob him of it; he went to his house heavy of heart, and fretted, like a spoilt child, because he could not get what he wanted. It was but a little thing, and he might have been content to go without it. He was king of all Israel, and what was one small vineyard more or less to him? But prosperity had spoilt him; he must needs have every toy on which he set his heart, and he was weak enough to fret that he could not get more, when he had too much already. But he knew that he could not get it; that, king as he was, Naboth's property was his own, and that God's everlasting Law stood between him and the thing he coveted. Well for him if he had been contented with fretting. But, my friends--and be you rich or poor, take heed to my words--whenever any man gives way to selfishness, and self-seeking, to a proud, covetous, envious, peevish temper, the Devil is sure to glide up and whisper in his ear thoughts which will make him worse--worse, ay, than he ever dreamt of being. First comes the flesh, and then the Devil; and if the flesh opens the door of the heart, the Devil steps in quickly enough. First comes the flesh: fleshly, carnal pride at being thwarted; fleshly, carnal longing for a thing, which longs all the more for it because one cannot have it; fleshly, carnal peevishness and ill-temper, at not having just the pleasant thing one happens to like. That is a state of mind which is a bird-call for all the devils; and when they see a man in that temper, they flock to him, I believe, as crows do to carrion. It is astonishing, humbling, awful, my friends, what horrible thoughts will cross one's mind if once one gives way to that selfish, proud, angry, longing temper; thoughts of which we are ashamed the next moment; temptations to sin at which we shudder, they seem so unlike ourselves, not parts of ourselves at all. When the dark fit is past, one can hardly believe that such wicked thoughts ever crossed one's mind. I don't think that they are part of ourselves; I believe them to be the whispers of the Devil himself; and when they pass away, I believe that it is the Lord Jesus Christ who drives them away. But if any man gives way to them, determines to keep his sullenness, and so gives place to the Devil; then those thoughts do not pass; they take hold of a man, possess him, as the Bible calls it, and make him in his madness do things which--alas! who has not done things in his day, of which he has repented all his life after?--things for which he would gladly cut off his right hand for the sake of being able to say, 'I never did that?' But the thing is done--done to all eternity: he has given place to the Devil, and the Devil has made him do in five minutes work which he could not undo in five thousand years; and all that is left is, when he comes to himself, to cast himself on God's boundless mercy, and Christ's boundless atonement, and cry, 'My sins are like scarlet, Thou alone canst make them whiter than snow: my sin is ever before me; only let it not be ever before Thee, O God! Punish me, if thou seest fit; but oh forgive, for there is mercy with Thee, and infinite redemption!' And, thanks be to God's great love, he will not cry in vain. Yet, oh, my friends, do not give place to the Devil, unless you wish, forgiven or not, to repent of it to the latest day you live.
And this was Ahab's fate. He knew, I say, that he was wrong; he knew that Naboth's property was his own, and dare not openly rob him of it; and he went to his house, heavy of heart, and refused to eat; and while he was in such a temper as that, the Devil lost no time in sending an evil spirit to him. It was a woman whom he sent, Jezebel, Ahab's own wife: but she was, as far as we can see, a woman of a devilish spirit, cruel, proud, profligate, and unjust, as well as a worshipper of the filthy idols of the Canaanites. Ahab's first sin was in having married this wicked heathen woman: now his sin punished itself; she tempted him through his pride and self- conceit; she taunted him into sin: 'Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth.' You all remember how she did so; by falsely accusing Naboth of blasphemy. Ahab seems to have taken no part in Naboth's murder. Perhaps he was afraid; but he was a weak man, and Jezebel was a strong and fierce spirit, and ruled him, and led him in this matter, as she did in making him worship idols with her; and he was content to be led. He was content to let others do the wickedness he had not courage to carry out himself. He forgot that, as is well said, 'He who does a thing by another, does it by himself;' that if you let others sin for you, you sin for yourself. Would to God, my friends, that we would all remember this! How often people wink at wrong-doing in those with whom they have dealings, in those whom they employ, in their servants, in their children, because it is convenient to them. They shut their eyes, and their hearts too, and say to themselves, 'At all events, it is his doing and not mine; and it is his concern; I am not answerable for other people's sins. I would not do such a thing myself, certainly; but as it is done, I may as well make the best of it. If I gain by it, I need not be so very sharp in looking into the matter.' And so you see men who really wish to be honest and kindly themselves, making no scruple of profiting by other people's dishonesty and cruelty. Now the law punishes the receiver of stolen goods almost as severely as the thief himself: but there are many receivers of stolen goods, my friends, whom the law cannot touch. The world, at times, seems to me to be full of them; for every one, my friends, who hushes up a cruel or a dishonest matter, because he himself is a gainer by it, he is no better than the receiver of stolen goods, and he will find in the day of the Lord, that the sin will lie at his door, as Jezebel's sin lay at Ahab's. There was no need for Ahab to say, 'Jezebel did it, and not I.' The prophet did not even give him time to excuse himself: 'Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?' By taking possession of Naboth's vineyard, and so profiting by his murder, he made himself partaker in that murder, and had to hear the terrible sentence, 'In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick thy blood, even thine.'
Oh, my friends, whatsoever you do, keep clean hands and a pure heart. If you touch pitch, it will surely stick to you. Let no gain tempt you to be partaker of others men's sins; never fancy that, because men cannot lay the blame on the right person, God cannot. God will surely lay the burden on the man who helped to make the burden; God will surely require part payment from the man who profited by the bargain; so keep yourselves clear of other men's sins, that you may be clear also of their condemnation.
So Ahab had committed a horrible and great sin, and had received sentence for it, and now, as I said before, there was nothing to be done but to repent; and he did so, after his fashion.
Ahab, it seems, was not an utterly bad man; he was a weak man, fond of his own pleasure, a slave to his own passions, and easily led, sometimes to good, but generally to evil. And God did not execute full vengeance on him: his repentance was a poor one enough; but such as it was, the good and merciful God gave him credit for it as far as it went, and promised him that the worst part of his sentence, the ruin of his family, should not come in his time. But still the sentence against him stood, and was fulfilled. Not long after, as we read in the second lesson, he was killed in battle, and that not bravely and with honour (for if he had been, that would have been but a slight punishment, my friends), but shamefully by a chance shot, after he had disguised himself, in the cowardice of his guilty conscience, and tried to throw all the danger on his ally, good King Jehoshaphat of Judah; 'and they washed his chariot in the pool of Samaria, and the dogs licked up his blood, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah the prophet.'
So ends one of the most clear and terrible stories in the whole Bible, of God's impartial justice. May God give us all grace to lay it to heart! We are all tempted, as Ahab was; rich or poor, our temptation is alike to give place to the Devil, and let him lead us into dark and deep sin, by giving way to our own fancies, longings, pride, and temper. We are all tempted, as Ahab was, to over-reach our neighbours in some way; I do not mean always in cheating them, but in being unfair to them, in caring more for ourselves than for them; thinking of ourselves first, and of them last; trying to make ourselves comfortable, or to feed our own pride, at their expense. Oh, my friends, whenever we are tempted to be selfish and grasping, be sure that we are opening a door to the very Devil of hell himself, though he may look so smooth, and gentle, and respectable, that perhaps we shall not know him when he comes to us, and shall take his counsels for the counsel of an angel of light. But be sure that if it is selfishness which has opened the door of our heart, not God, but the Devil, will come in, let him disguise himself as cunningly as he will; and our only hope is to flee to Him in whom there was no selfishness, the Lord Jesus Christ, who came not to do His own will, but His Father's; not to glorify Himself, but His Father; not to save His own life, but to sacrifice it freely, for us, His selfish, weak, greedy, wandering sheep. Pray to Him to give you His Spirit, that glorious spirit of love, and duty, and self- sacrifice, by which all the good deeds on earth are done; which teaches a man not to care about himself, but about others; to help others, to feel for others, to rejoice in their happiness, to grieve over their sorrows, to give to them, rather than take from them--in one word, The Holy Spirit of God, which may He pour out on you, and me, and all mankind, that we may live justly and lovingly, as children of one just and loving Father in heaven.